Friends of Padre Steve’s World
The late Father Andrew Greeley wrote in his mystery novel The Archbishop in Andalusia, “Every sacramental encounter is an evangelical occasion. A smile warm and happy is sufficient. If people return to the pews with a smile, it’s been a good day for them. If the priest smiles after the exchanges of grace, it may be the only good experience of the week.”
I firmly believe that, and this week I had the opportunity to be present at one of thos sacramental encounters.
People who know me well, and people who have read what I have written on this site for the past six or so years know that I struggle with faith, belief, and doubt. I am a priest, and have been so for nearly twenty years, but faith for me is a constant struggle, and as such, I pray that in my seasons of doubt, and occasional unbelief that I won’t screw things up for others.
Over the past two years my academic duties have been more a part of my life than my priestly duties because of the nature of my assignment at the Staff College. I have a chapel, but attendance is always sparse and if I get more than five people in attendance it feels like a mega-church. I also do some counseling as well as care for students or those on our staff and faculty who need pastoral care, but the bulk of my duties are teaching and writing. This has been good as I spent the five previous years in hospital ministry and before that ten of twelve years doing operational duties and the other two in base chapels and congregations.
My current duties are refreshing, and despite my struggles with faith I attempt to be sensitive to what is going on around me, and the people who I come into contact with. This has been one of those kinds of weeks. We had a friend get ploughed over by an inattentive driver who cut across two lanes of traffic to strike my friend on his Harley. My friend was not at fault but is busted up pretty badly. His recovery will take six months to a year. Judy and I were visiting him on Thursday night and when we were going out on the elevator, it stopped and an older lady with two large bags asked if the elevator was going down. I said yes, held the door and had her come in. Since she was taking bags out I asked if she had family there and if she was going to be taking them home.
She looked up and told me that her husband was dying and had just days to live. I asked if I could carry her bags to her car and she told us what was going on. Her husband, a 30-year Navy veteran, who she had been married to for 46 years, was taken ill just a week prior after coming home from work. She took him to the hospital and after exploratory surgery they were informed that he had cancer throughout his body and just days to live, nothing could be done. It came as a shock as he had not missed a day of work for over ten years, and the illness was the first sign that he was sick.
We walked her to her car and I carried her bags and told her that I was a Navy chaplain. I have few words to describe what happened next. When I said that she was moved to tears, but they were not tears of sadness, she said that God must have meant for us to be on the same elevator. I wonder about such encounter, often, if not most of the time, I believe that what happens to us is not directed by God; but rather chance encounters that we are left to do the best we can in; but I was not going to argue. I realized that many military veterans and their families, especially older ones, are often more appreciative of chaplains than civilian clergy; so I offered to do anything that I could. I took a battered business card from my wallet, scribbled by cell phone number on the back and gave it to her, inviting her to call me any time. Judy and I left her as she went home to clean up and await the arrival of her children before she went back to the hospital.
That night she and her husband weighed on my mind and late last night she called me and asked if I could come by the hospital Saturday or Sunday. I told her that I would be there this morning. I again thought of her and her husband and what I would need, and tried to get some fitful hours of sleep. I got up, and went to the office to pick up my prayer book and hospital stole, made sure I had oil to anoint him and then drove the twenty-miles back across town from the base to the hospital, where I arrived at ten a.m. I knocked, and she greeted me, a social worker from the hospital palliative care was there, as was her son. She greeted me with a hug and introduced me and let me know that her husband had passed away not long before. He lay in the bed and she invited me to sit with her by him.
She then told me of his passing, how she saw the room filled with angels and a golden hue, she asked God to wait to allow her son and his brother to arrive. He hung on and shortly after they arrived she could see and feel the angels taking her husband to heaven. She then spoke of their life, and relationship and all the hopes, dreams and joys that they had experienced over the years, and how she had always been jealous that he had kept his youthful looks while she had obviously aged. She asked if I would pray and then I did so, commending his soul to God. I was reminded of Greeley’s words “We are born with two incurable diseases, life, from which we die, and hope, which says maybe death isn’t the end.” The encounter re-impressed those words on me. We all die, but we live in hope that death is not the end.
After a while longer I left and went to visit my friend who is being discharged today, though he will need several more surgeries over the coming weeks an months. We are going to do all that we can for him and his wife to help take up some of the burden, because they, like so many of our friends from the bar at Gordon Biersch are closer to us than any church people that we have known here; and they have been there for us when we needed them.
So now we are about ready to go to a birthday party for another friend. All part of the cycle of life, and perhaps the cycle of God’s grace, love, and presence, even in those times that we do not believe.